KAMPALA, Nov 25, 2012 – M23 rebels announced they had opened talks with Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, hours after a regional summit called on them to end their offensive in the east of the country.
Stealing a march on the region’s leaders, the political leader of the eastern DR Congo rebel group, Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, said he had had an initial meeting with Kabila after the summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, had ended.
While he was not invited to the summit itself, Runiga Lugerero told AFP he had been able to meet Kabila thanks to the mediation of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, with whom he had been due to hold talks.
“The atmosphere was tense but afterwards, each (side) calmed the debate down because these are not personal problems, but problems of the country” that must be settled, he told AFP by phone.
“I think the meeting went very well.”
He and Kabila would meet again on Sunday to discuss how the talks would proceed, he added.
“They did in fact meet,” Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda told AFP. But he denied that further face-to-face talks between Kabila and M23 were envisaged.
Runiga Lugerero’s announcement came just days after Kabila had appeared to rule out talks with the rebel force.
And a few hours earlier, in their closing statement, regional leaders at the summit had called on the M23 fighters to stop fighting and pull out of the key eastern city of Goma within 48 hours.
Runiga Lugerero, however, made it clear that any withdrawal would only come about after talks between the rebel movement and Kabila. M23 fighters would defend their positions if Congo’s troops attacked, he warned.
The summit was not in the end attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Ugandan officials announced earlier Saturday that Kigali would instead be represented by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.
Kagame has persistently rejected accusations, not just from Kinshasa but from UN investigators, that Rwanda is backing — and effectively running — the mainly Tutsi M23 force.
In their closing statement, the leaders called on the M23 rebels to “stop all war activities” and “stop talk of overthrowing an elected government.” On Wednesday, Vianney Kazarama, one of the rebels’ leaders, had said that Kabila should go.
Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa said the summit had called on the rebels to withdraw from Goma and reposition themselves at least 20 km (12 miles) north of the city.
That would correspond roughly to the positions the rebels held around Kibumba before they launched their attack on Goma, the regional capital of mineral-rich North Kivu region.
UN peacekeepers would then take up positions between them and the city, the summit statement said.
In exchange, the Kinshasa government would “listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances” of the rebels.
The M23 was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal. The mutineers say the terms of that deal were never fully implemented.
After the summit ended, DR Congo President Joseph Kabila was asked if he was happy with the outcome. He would be satisfied “when peace returns,” he said.
The summit was officially reserved for the nations of the 11-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
In addition to Kabila, Saturday’s summit was also attended by Museveni, of host nation Uganda, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.
The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday, and took the key town of Sake 20 kilometres to the west the next day.
The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee, amid persistent reports that the M23 rebels have carried out atrocities on local people.
Although Uganda’s Museveni has played the role of mediator in the past few days and hosted Saturday’s summit, UN investigators have also accused the country of backing M23 rebels. Kampala has denied the charge.
Aid agencies fear that this latest uprising could set off another regional conflict, such as the ones in 1996 and 2002.
In DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa, the interior ministry temporarily banned peace protests Saturday, blocking students from holding a planned rally.
“The interior ministry said demonstrations were banned to give diplomacy a chance,” student leader Dieumerci Bebeto told AFP. An interior ministry official, who did not want to be named, confirmed the ban.
The move came after several thousand women, including Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers, marched Friday against the violence.
Protesters have staged demonstrations in several DR Congo cities since the rebels seized Goma, which have sometimes turned violent. Three people died at a protest in Kisangani, the capital of the eastern province of Orientale, UN-sponsored broadcaster Radio Okapi reported.
Protesters have also criticised the UN peacekeepers, who they said have not done enough to stop the rebels.